Have food, will travel: Egypt

Of course travel entails physical movement from one place to another. But some of the most experiential ways to travel is of course the culinary travel, one of my most favourite ways to see and smell and experience the new cultures.

Egypt was a delight of a discovery if the cuisine appeals to the palate, like it did for me. Egyptian cuisine consists of the local culinary traditions of Egypt and makes great use of vegetables and sprouts of many kinds. Probably because of the rich Nile delta that produces large quantities of high quality crops.
Bread forms the backbone of Egyptian cuisine, consumed by all classes is largely accompanied with beans. Bread was central to all food in Egypt, just as much as the roti or rice is as a staple to India. Infact an interesting anecdote was narrated to me about breads in Egypt – more than an occasional fight has broken out over bread, leading to fear of bread riots in Egypt. So yep bread is serious business there. Very central to food consumption

The one dish that caught my fancy so totally in Egypt was Kushari made of lentils, rice, macaroni, chickpeas and tomato sauce and yummy fried crisp onion shavings as toppings to add the right crunch to a tasty wholesome meal. For a vegetarian this dish is full of goodness and nutrition, tasty and has a delicate flavour, very close to home grown food for me:)The other favourite of mine was and is the fresh herbs mixed with spicy tomato salad (almost like the salsa) which is stuffed in aubergines and then baked or deep fried in butter. Lip smacking yummy! Mulukhiyya is another popular green soup made of finely chopped leaves, coriander and fried garlic that gives it the bite needed for the locals to feel the food. I find the garlic to be over powering and hence not one of m most favoured among the many dishes I absolutely loved there.

While I was there and did not partake in the non veg fare I could see that non veg food is a way of life there just as much as eating fresh vegetables is. In many nations I have seen people slant one way or another but in Egypt the Egyptians eat in a balanced manner, the kebabs and the koftas are accompanied with a healthy helping of veggies and salads that make for wholesome food.

The other dishes that blew me away so completely - the famous rice dish! It’s a dish where spicy rice is stuffed into vegetables like bell peppers. Absolutely divine and melts in the mouth experience. Then it can also be prepared with rice and tomatoes which in turn is rolled in grapevine leaves and is unmistakably tangy in taste. The same preparation had a variation - can be made in cabbage leaves if you cant deal with the tanginess of the grapevine leaves (I prefer the cabbage leaves) – I found this dish delectable. It is time consuming labour of love, but the ultimate result is a craft and precision that allows for a gastronomic delight.

If you think India is delight for the sweet toothed,think again, India has competition! I went into a pretty similar halwai shop (like our very own Chappan Bhog or Ghasitaram) and the result was I brought back kilos and kilos of fabulous sweets from Egypt into India through customs! The deserts are to absolutely die for! Their pastries and puddings dripping in honey, soft and gentle, tatse that makes you want to over indulge and give 2 hoots about calory intake! Mahallabiya is the Egyptian version of Indian kheer (milk pudding) , Asbusa is like a lovely flaky cookie to have with a good cup of coffee, Asabi gullash has lots of nuts, spices and syrup , these are little finger food snacks and is …yum. Baklava is made in ghee and is horrifically rich, sinful, divine and demands a second helping! As you can tell the food in Egypt is wide varied and something you fall in love with very easily. Basbousa another favourite of mine - a semolina cake coconut based (and to think of it I am not really too fond of Indian coconut based sweets but loved this Egyptian sweet!) with almond, vanilla, rosewater. The true test of good food is when a vegetarian like me endorses that food:)

If I don’t stop writing right away, I will be adding more weight to myself just thinking about all this food. So! My closing thoughts … while all that you have heard of Egypt about its mysticism and what not is true but the real Egypt lies in the food - give me my last morsel from Egypt and I will reach jannat!


sanjiv said...

Although Egyptian eating habits may seem erratic, most Egyptians begin the day with a light breakfast of beans (or bean cakes), eggs, and/or pickles, cheeses, yogurt and jams. Most families eat their large, starchy lunch around 1400-1700 and follow it with a siesta. They may take a British-style tea at 1700 or 1800 and eat a light supper late in the evening. Dinner parties, however, are scheduled late, often no earlier than 2100,and in an hour two hours dinner is served. I stayed with a local family for a week in Cairo and even went to Pizza outlets for lunch and dinner. Expensive but was a change nonetheless.

sheila said...

My trip to Egypt was like a typical tourist exploring the sights and smells. I saw and been to many of the smaller, Egyptian-style restaurants that specialized in basic meat and fava-bean dishes. They were simple, tasty and inexpensive. In such places waiters speak little English, so I had to use my phrase book often.

Mike said...

Hey I got lucky and was invited to dine in an Egyptian home of friend in Alexandra. I reached their place and took a bouquet of fresh flowers to my hosts home. The entire family was introduced to me but not all of them joined us to eat at the table.

We split a few beers and then had wholesome fabulous food. Kebabs of many variety, rice n pulaos of varying aromas, koftas and soft soft bread which I used instead of a fork. All the food gets set in the middle of the table at the beginning of the meal so its pretty much help yourself which makes for 'feel at home' gesture.

There is one thing I found common to the Indian tradition I sampled when I was back in India and so similar to Egypt - you need to refuse their gentle hospitality more than once to convince your host that you really can't eat anymore:)

Complimenting the hostess on her cooking skills as well as (for women) asking her for recipes are in good taste and appreciated.

I loved the warmth and the softness this culture exudes, very different from the brash loud Arab culture I have seen in Oman

gita said...

I learnt a thing or two about food in Egypt. The mainstay of Egyptian diets, aysh (bread) comes in several forms. The most common is a pita type made either with refined white flour called aysh shami, or with coarse, whole wheat, aysh baladi. Stuffed with any of several fillings, it becomes the Egyptian sandwich. Aysh shams is bread made from leavened dough allowed to rise in the sun, while plain aysh comes in long, skinny, French-style loaves. If you find yourself faced with hard, dry aysh, do like the Egyptians: soften it in water, and if you have a fire available, warm it over the open flame. Its soft and yummy again!

melinda said...

Mee you didn't mention the fruits you get in Egypt. There are multitude of fresh fruits year-round, but since all are tree- or vine-ripened, only those in season appear in suqs (markets) or on vendors' stands. In the winter, mohz (bananas), balah (dates), and burtu'aan (any of several varieties of oranges) appear. Special treats are burtu'aan bedammoh (pink oranges), whose skin looks like most oranges, but their pulp is red and sweet. The Egyptian summer is blessed with battiikh (melon), khukh (peach), berkuk (plum), and 'anub (grapes). Tin shawki is a cactus fruit that appears in August or September. A huge variety of fruits they have:)

effie said...

I'm reading this at 8.30 in the morning and I'm hungry already!Haven't been to Eygpt, but have a friend who is married to an Eygptian; to look at her now is to know that she's learnt to love food!

Neelu said...

oh yummy..
it's mid morning. just had my fruit and my stomach is growling again reading your appetising post.

Jim said...

Egyptian desserts & pastries & puddings are usually drenched in honey syrup:) Baklava (filo dough, honey, and nuts) is one of the less sweet of them; fatir are pancakes stuffed with everything from eggs to apricots; and basbousa, quite sweet, is made of semolina pastry soaked in honey and topped with hazelnuts.V-e-r-y tasty! Umm ali, a delight named for Mamluk queen, is raisin cake soaked in milk and served hot is delicious. Kanafa is a batter of strings "strings" fried on a hot grill and stuffed with nuts, meats, or sweets. Egyptian rice is mahallabiyya indeed and is served topped with pistachios. French-style pastries are called gatoux. Good chocolate candies are likewise difficult to find, though Western-style candy bars are beginning to make their appearance. The Egyptian ice cream runs closer to ice milk or sherbet than cream. Most restaurants and many homes serve fresh fruits for desserts, and it makes a perfect, light conclusion to most meals. Cheers to yummy food always:)

ALLEX said...

after a long time I read your yummy article..... good to know that you love sweets so much.... pictures too are too enticing... so the taste must be g8..... At last after a long list of tours in which you could not have any thing now you could devour.

RavneetSingh said...

Hey Mee, how come no mention of your favourite brew- Coffee? I know you guys used to hang out at that Danish bistro regularly.And I know how you love good coffee:)

Here's my bit on coffee in Egypt- developed and popularized in the Middle East, the drinking of ahwa (coffee) remains a national tradition, and local coffeehouses still cater to men who come to drink coffee, discuss politics, play tawla (backgammon), listen to "Oriental" (Egyptian) music, and smoke the shiisha (water pipe). Although the traditional poetry and high-powered politics have migrated to fancy homes and offices, the coffee remains. You will also be offered the thick, strong, but tasty brew in homes, offices, and bazaar shops. Turkish coffee is made from finely powdered beans brewed in a small pot. As the water just begins to boil, the grounds float to the surface in a dark foam; the ahwa is brought to you still in the pot and poured into a demitasse. The heavier grounds sink to the bottom of the cup and the lighter ones form a foam on the top, the mark of a perfectly brewed cup. Sip carefully to avoid the grounds in the bottom of the cup. (If you don't like the foam, you can blow it aside under the guise of cooling your drink.)

Although Turkish coffee has a reputation for being tart, its actual flavor depends on the mix of beans used in the grind; the larger the percentage of Arabica, the sweeter and more chocolatey flavor. Ahwa comes in several versions: ahwa sada is black, ahwa ariha is lightly sweetened with sugar, ahwa mazboot is moderately sweetened, and ahwaziyada is very sweet. You must specify the amount of sugar at the time you order, for it's sweetened in the pot. Most people order mazboot, which cuts the tartness; ahwa is never served with cream. Most hotel and restaurant breakfasts include strong coffee - usually Nescafe; you may have to specially order it with sugar (bil sukkar) or milk (bil laban).

brian said...

Lovely post.. almost made my mouth water with the awesome description of the various dishes. I just loved their black tea which was a refresher anytime of the day. Another must try in Egypt is their Ice creams which is very different...

Anonymous said...

Mee, your recent blog should have come with a health warning.
“Further reading will be detrimental to your weight as 10lbs will be added to your hips from merely reading the descriptions of these yummy dishes” :)

ALLEX said...

whata beautiful insight you have given about the eating habits..... you are really a good observer

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